No matter if I tried, I would never be seen as a Friend of Coal. I’m a bastard child, an environmental child.
I know this.
Yet I salute multimillionaire coal baron Jim Justice for what he’s doing for West Virginia’s tourism economy while protesting mountaintop removal with a vengeance.
Is it really possible to do both?
In my adult life I’ve come to understand the dualities and the “third” options because of my experiences: I am what some call biracial or mixxed – my Momma is melanin deficient, my Daddy is not – they both gave me West Virginia.
My life has taught me that what black people say about whites is never 100 percent true. Neither is what whites say about blacks. There are always shades of gray. There is always room for investigation. There are always shades of Green.
I’ve learned to look first for the fear. Once you identify that, you can sift through whatever black/white/nigger/cracker/tree hugger/evil coal baron generalizations are being made.
Make no mistake: In West Virginia there is a lot of fear. Fear of not having jobs, clean water, healthcare, and on and on. Match that with some hell-raising, true grit Mountaineer spirit and, well, you’ve got yourself a debate and some Pinkerton police.
It can be deadly combo.
Today we are still at the heart of the “labor wars” – today we are divided – Republicans vs. Democrats, elites vs. non-elites.
Our notion of what is elitist can cut our nose off to spite our face. I’m thinking back to the Clay Center – the multimillion-dollar arts center in Charleston – and the early opposition it faced from those who felt it was elitist. We need the Clay Center. It is a jewel in Charleston, an artery and selling point for the city. Without it we are, dare I say, po-dunk.
It’s always a matter of perspective and experience when you’re making comparisons, and I certainly have my own lenses. But I think what I have to say is important because when it comes to our West Virginia economy and our environment, we are trying to be either/or and, folks, that’s just not the way it is.
The Pro Coal vs. I Love Mountains decision reminds me of how I grew up on BOTH sides of black and white with the constant question: What are you?
What the HELL am I? I’m dang blasted American. I’m Appalachian. I’m somebody’s Momma. Geez. I’m human.
I’m black. I’m white. And so much more. But at 12 I just said I was an Indian born on a clear morning and that’s why my name was Crystal Dawn.
The question – What Are You? – is asked of EVERYONE in West Virginia. No longer does it matter (as much) if I am black or white. Now it’s am I, or you, GREEN?
Are you a Friend of Coal or not?
Are you a Keeper of the Mountains or not?
I’m making broad strokes because what I am is a poet, too.
Appalachian complexities reach beyond race and class. Even the bumper sticker on your car – either Friends of Coal or I Love Mountains – defines you here.
I’m free. Montani Semper Liberi.
I am free to take my position in the environmental struggle and decide what kind of soldier I want to be in the “war on coal.”
- I oppose MTR
- I believe in The Greenbrier – just as I did the Clay Center – as a catalyst for economic growth in WV.
So here I sit, like I did in the 10th grade when my white Granddaddy told me I could be anything but black and the kids at school explained to me that I was indeed black because, as the old slave law said, “one drop of black blood … ”
My single drop of environmental “green” blood today shuts doors for me, forces me to drink and eat over here. My life is divided. Too green. Not green enough.
In the 10th grade I told my Granddaddy his argument was flawed, that I could not “pass” as white, that I should be allowed to be friends with whomever I chose and, especially, black kids because I am black. I am.
I claimed NO other identity then. It was a hard choice; a necessary separation. Then even the census required this choice.
Today, with Obama as president, we have a greater tolerance for mixed people defining themselves. Today, the census allows me to move beyond the “other” category and identify myself as both “black and white.” Yet in West Virginia, when it comes to coal, you MUST make hard choices.
There is no OTHER in coal but I am standing once again in the middle, with a different perspective and a prayer that something will change for my beloved West Virginia as it has in my life.
Today my family is a beautiful blend of black and white sitting together around the table on holidays. This took a long time.
I decided a while back that it was my self-appointed job to be an ambassador for West Virginia diversity and urban tourism. I’ve been on a mission for several years. I know the state isn’t gong to offer me any support. The Powers that Be have their formula and it often feels like there is no room for me and my guerilla marketing tactics. Still, I stay committed through my West Virginia youth projects, at NYC dinner parties, in my Affrilchian poetry and through Create WV.
For me it all starts at The Greenbrier. When I am there I am Mizz. Affrilachaia. There is no place like it. It is uniquely West Virginia. It is our crown jewel.
It’s boring, too. As colorful as its decor is, it could use more color, more diversity, in its guests. After all, it’s “America’s Resort” and should represent that ideal year round.
I’ve learned on several of my West Virginia recon missions that if I can get people to our state they fall in love with it and with us. They go back and tell others and thus our tourism is enhanced, our possibilities are increased.
I (did) serve on the board of OVEC – The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. I travel around reading my poem “Boom Boom” about strip-mined mountains and women who take off their clothes for money. And I’ve traveled a fair part of the world talking about The Greenbrier.
I’ve never met JJ (Jim Justice – that’s what I like to call him). I don’t agree with everything the so called “evil coal baron” has done, such as ignoring this humanitarian disaster this past summer. But this blog – heck, my life – is about compromise and balance, so at the same time I have to agree that the state sorely needed the media exposure given to the Greenbrier Classic, the world-class event Justice was hosting as people were suffering.
In 2010, I made JJ this video in which I invoke my inner Dorothy Draper. You can watch it here:
It’s my open letter to him about the possibilities for bringing affluent African Americans to a create another major event at The Greenbrier.
Dorothy Draper was the interior design queen of color, texture and pattern. She was also the designer of the legendary Greenbrier.
She is my inspiration, not for my living room but for how to get things done. How to have a vision, stick to it and be BOLD. How to mix things that don’t go together but somehow they work.
I made the video for JJ when I was doing consulting work with the Boy Scouts of America and trying to do the impossible there, challenged with developing minority and diversity outreach. Some might say the organization is “evil” too, given its history of covering up sexual abuse and banning homosexuals. But I believe that in order to influence change you have to have people on the inside that are willing to sincerely see both sides.
During my time on the inside as a consultant for the BSA, I wore rainbow dresses in silent protest of its stance against gays. (Take a look at these heartbreaking letters from Scouts turning in their badges in protest of the policy.) And while I am very sensitive to child abuse, I worked with the BSA during my own effort to prosecute a child molester. Again, in the name of compromise and balance, I am appreciative that the BSA is investing in West Virginia and bringing thousands of new visitors to the state with the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve in Fayette County. It’s is expected to produce more than $50 million economic impact.
In fact, I’m proud.
I’m giving you full disclosure here: I also worked for a major coal law firm, Jackson Kelly, as communications director. I saw the human side of coal lawyers. They’re people, with families and a love for the outdoors. I also know the intimidation that goes on in those law firms.
JK was good to me. While I worked there, we took on meaningful projects. Our “Global Sullivan Principles” seminar was one of them. Based on the principles of native West Virginian Reverend Leon H. Sullivan, it called on businesses to support economic, social, and political justice in the communities they serve, with the goal of improving quality of life.
Looking back, the compromises I made were worthwhile. I believe I made favorable West Virginia impressions through my work with JK. I also believe I created a positive opinion on the value of diversity while inside the Scouts.
I have a knack for creating bridges. West Virginia is full of them already. I intend to make more.
I’d like to create a bridge between green and pro-coal. And that’s why I feel like Jim Justice as a coal baron – as the only coal baron in the dang blasted HISTORY of West Virginia coal to reinvest in its tourism industry – is valuable to the redevelopment of our economy.
We have to diversify our economy. We can’t close mines, we can’t expect to grow without an innovative new economic strategy, and we can’t build on our greatest assets – our people and our natural beauty – if we don’t have them.
That’s why I made that silly video for JJ dressed up as Dorothy Draper. I believe in what I’m saying. With my “guerilla” marketing tactics I got myself to the Black Enterprise table and guess what? West Virginia doesn’t exactly have the best reputation for welcoming diverse communities.
Just look at the recent Presidential campaign. West Virginia was in the illustrious Top 10 for racist tweets following the election. What kind of branding does that give us alongside the constant mainstream late night TV show punchlines – dreadful branding, that’s what. And that’s a shame because our ski resorts and whitewater rafting destinations are within driving time of some of the wealthiest African American zip codes in America.
Race matters for now, even as some folks cannot wrap their heads around the idea of a Black President. And in West Virginia, coal matters, even as some can’t wrap their minds around a compromise.
I walk IN compromise. It’s my skin.
The compromise for West Virginia is an economic one. And just as sure as I stood up to my Granddaddy and said, “I am black,” I’ll tell JJ and whomever else will listen that I’m pro-mountain, pro-water, pro-small town survival.
I’m for all our survival. Spike Lee asks, “the Knicks or the Nets?” It doesn’t matter as long as you have love, a love for New York or, in our case, a love for WV.
Love doesn’t mean giving in, sometimes it means standing up. I didn’t back down from my Grandaddy. I am a daughter of the state of West Virginia. I knew what was right. And once I found myself in a black world I took a few hits for being “white.” Black or white – whatever box I check – I will always be a daughter.
If I can use my perspective, my poems, my ambition and marketing tactics to build bridges – to straddle the world between Jim Justice and the “Environmentals” – then I want to try to find the shades of green.
“Never look back, except for an occasional glance, look ahead and plan for the future. Success is not built on past laurels, but rather on a continuous activity. Keep busy searching out new ideas and, experimentally, keep ahead of the times, or at least up with them.” – Dorothy Draper